Got Back Pain? These Conditions May Be to Blame
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Got Back Pain? These Conditions May Be to Blame

Weren't in an accident? Didn't lift anything heavy? Here are some other culprits.

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By Olivia DeLong

You probably know that too much screen time, a fall down the stairs, too much time sitting or a car accident can leave your back feeling less than 100 percent. But back pain can be the result of an underlying medical condition, too. In fact, 8 out of 10 Americans have back pain at some point in their lives.

Here are some of the common health conditions that cause back pain—plus information you need about the different treatment options.

Herniated disks

2 / 9 Herniated disks

As you can imagine, herniated disks can cause serious back pain. 

Disks are filled with a jelly-like substance to provide cushioning between your vertebrae and help keep them in place. A disk that ruptures is called a herniated disk; when this occurs in the lower area of the spine, the disk can leak and press against nerves, contributing to back pain.

Activities that may strain your spine—like lifting heavy objects, repetitive bending and twisting or sitting for long periods of time—and other factors like smoking, age and obesity can contribute to herniated disks.

If you’re having pain in the back, hip, buttocks, legs or feet—particularly with feelings of numbness—see your doctor for a physical exam and possibly imaging tests. Over-the-counter pain medication can usually help alleviate pain associated with herniated disks, and most of the time the discomfort will improve within four weeks. Depending on the severity of the condition, prescription pain medications, physical therapy, steroid injections or surgery may be needed.

To try and avoid herniated disks, you can also adopt healthy lifestyle habits:

  • Stand up straight and use good posture
  • Bend both your knees and hips when lifting something up off the floor
  • When carrying something heavy, hold it close to your body
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
Degenerative Disk Disease

3 / 9 Degenerative Disk Disease

Degenerative disk disease is a condition that involves deteriorating disks between the vertebrae. Some degeneration is natural as you age—disks become dry and lose their ability to absorb shocks. Traumatic injuries and the wear and tear caused by high-impact sports can also lead to disk tearing, inflammation and soreness.

Disks that become injured have difficulty repairing themselves because the blood supply is limited, leading to deterioration. This condition can cause pain in the back, buttocks and thigh areas. Here’s what to watch out for:

  • Pain that can be nagging, severe or disabling
  • Numbness, pain, tingling or weakness in the back, buttocks, thigh or leg areas
  • Pain that is exacerbated by sitting, bending or lifting
  • Pain that improves with walking, moving around or changing positions when lying down
  • Pain that comes in waves and can last for a couple of days to a few months

A physical exam, medical history and MRI can usually help your doctor determine whether you have the signs of degenerative disk disease. Usually, strengthening the muscles around the spinal area with exercise can reduce pain. Other treatments may include physical therapy, heat and cold therapy, medication (including anti-inflammatories) and various types of surgery.

Arthritis

4 / 9 Arthritis

You know that arthritis (inflammation of joints) can give you creaky knees and sore hands, but it often affects the spine, too, particularly the lower back. There are many types of arthritis, but a few are most likely to attack your back.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common, and it usually happens after age 40. It often accompanies degenerative disc disease, and involves the breakdown of the joints where the vertebra connect with each other. Symptoms include lower back pain that can spread down your legs, or neck pain that radiates to the shoulder. It tends to hurt most in the morning and during activities, especially twisting or bending, and is relieved by rest.

Axial spondyloarthritis is an inflammatory arthritis that usually affects younger adults and is associated with other immune-related conditions like psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease. This type almost always causes low back pain and stiffness that is worse at night and after rest, and improves with exercise. Over time, the vertebra can actually fuse together.

Less often, rheumatoid arthritis, gout and infections can affect the spine. See your doctor if your pain associated with arthritis doesn’t get better with time. A primary physician is likely to suggest you have a physical exam, blood test or imaging tests. If the test results confirm a diagnosis of arthritis, you doctor will recommend treatment options, such as joint surgery, like joint replacement, and lifestyle management treatments such as regular exercise and a balanced diet.

Back injuries

5 / 9 Back injuries

Injuries to the back can obviously lead to aches and pains, especially, when it comes to short-term pain. In fact, injuries are the most common cause of acute back pain. Besides herniated discs, these are among the most common:

  • Sprains: Traumatic injuries, twisting, improper lifting or accidents can cause back ligaments to tear, leading to pain in one spot or a more generalized area.
  • Spasms: Back spasms—involuntary muscle contractions that feel similar to cramps—may occur if the back has been strained or overworked.
  • Spinal fractures: Falls and trauma can result in a spinal fracture, as can osteoporosis, or gradual weakening of the bone. Anything that puts excessive force or pressure on the spine can also lead to crushed vertebrae and compression fractures.
Osteoporosis

6 / 9 Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis involves bones that become weakened over time, making them more vulnerable to breaks and leading to back pain. Millions of Americans have osteoporosis, and risk factors include aging, gender, genetics, race, having a thin frame or low bone density and taking certain medications.

Some people don’t have any symptoms until they break a bone. Your doctor can recommend a bone mineral density test to confirm whether or not you have osteoporosis, but you can strengthen your bones proactively by adopting a diet rich in calcium, vitamin D and protein, getting regular exercise and quitting smoking. It’s equally important to take precautions in your everyday life to prevent falls. Wearing the proper shoes, removing clutter from floors and being careful when walking in the rain or snow can all help. Be sure to check with your doctor before taking calcium and vitamin D supplements.

Endometriosis

7 / 9 Endometriosis

You may be surprised to learn that endometriosis, a reproductive health condition that affects more than 11 percent of reproductive-age women in America can be responsible for some back pain, too. When you have endometriosis, uterine lining tissue grows outside of the uterus on areas including the ovaries, fallopian tubes and tissues that keep the uterus in place.

Pain is the main endometriosis indicator—specifically extremely uncomfortable menstrual cramping. Endometriosis can also cause pain in the lower back, pelvis and intestine, as well as painful bowel movements and sex. Irregular menstrual bleeding or spotting and infertility are also associated with endometriosis.

See your doctor if you’re having any symptoms, as they’ll want to do a pelvic exam and imaging tests such as an ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to check for cysts and patches of tissue caused by endometriosis. The only way your doctors can be 100 percent sure you have endometriosis is via laparoscopy, a surgery used to examine your pelvic area and look for any endometriosis tissue.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for endometriosis, but medications like hormonal birth control and intrauterine devices can minimize back and pelvic pain, as well as bleeding.

Kidney stones and kidney infections

8 / 9 Kidney stones and kidney infections

Kidney issues, like kidney stones and infections, can also lead to back pain. Kidney stones are hard kidney formations that are classified as either calcium, uric acid, struvite or cystine stones. Calcium stones are most common, and occur when calcium buildup isn’t naturally flushed out through your urine.

Kidney stones can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as pearl. While most kidney stones pass through the body on their own, some are too large to pass and may get stuck in the urinary tract and need to be removed with help from a doctor.

Larger kidney stones may cause side or back pain. The pain can be mild or severe and can come and go. Other signs include vomiting, bloody urine, fever, smelly urine or burning during urination. See a urologist if you have these symptoms, as they may want to test your urine or blood, or perform an x-ray of the abdomen or a computed tomography (CT) scan (or a combination of the two).

Treatment depends on the severity of your symptoms and the size of the kidney stone. For larger stones, your doctor may need to break them up or remove them using a procedure like shock wave lithotripsy.

A kidney infection, also known as pyelonephritis, is a urinary tract infection that occurs in the kidneys and can lead to back pain, too. Bacteria that’s supposed to live in the gut can make its way to the kidneys and cause the infection.

Pain associated with infections is usually in the flank, or the side of the lower back where the kidney is, and is accompanied by fever or nausea. A simple physical exam and urine test can confirm a kidney infection, and treatment will depend on the severity of your symptoms but usually involves antibiotics.

Tumors

9 / 9 Tumors

Cancers of organs can cause back pain in a variety of ways—by putting direct pressure on the spine, through enlarged lymph nodes or metastases and by placing pressure on nerves. These include cancers of the GI tract, pelvic organs and chest cavity. Blood-related cancers, such as multiple myeloma and leukemia can also cause back pain.

With multiple myeloma specifically, bone pain in the back, hips or chest, bone weakness or bone fractures are all common signs of more advanced stage cancer. If the cancer causes the bones to become weak, the weakened bones may collapse and put pressure on the spinal nerves, compressing the spinal cord and causing extreme back pain or leg numbness.

Depending on the stage of cancer, treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or stem cell transplants.

Back Pain

Back Pain

Just about everyone has experienced some level of back pain. It is one of the most common ailments brought on by disease, injury, or misalignment of the spine. It can be a dull muscle ache in the lower back or a severe, sharp pain ...

in that affects your ability to bend over or stand up straight. Most often back pain results from strained muscles and ligaments that surround the spine, but it can also be caused by structural problems with the bones of the spine. There are treatment options for back pain, and understanding the causes and symptoms is key to preventing it in the first place.
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